This is a topic that seems to come up every few years. As sensors increase in dynamic range, ND grads sometimes aren’t so essential. Raw processing software becomes more capable with each new release. Even filters that cut through haze aren’t always needed. But what about things like circular polarisers and big ND filters for super long exposures?
In this video, landscape photographer Thomas Heaton offers his insight and thoughts on the question. When it comes to polarisers, Thomas is of the opinion that they absolutely are necessary. It’s an opinion I share. The function that they serve just cannot be reproduced in post. But what about the rest? Watch the video to find out.
When it comes to neutral density and ND Grads, the answer is pretty clear. No, they’re not really needed. Digital technology offers us techniques and advantages that we didn’t have with film.
Instead of taking a single long exposure shot with a lot of stacks of ND over our lens, we can now lock our camera off on a tripod and take a 30 or 40 shots over the same duration, and then combine them in post to produce a near identical result. It’s a bit like the time stacking technique we posted about not too long ago.
As for ND Grads, these can be replaced by bracketing your shots and then using either HDR or frame blending techniques in post to get a similar final look.
So, why does Thomas use them? And why do so many other people, myself included, still insist on using them? Sure, I can blend 50 images in post to get a shot almost identical to slipping an ND filter over my lens and just taking a single long exposure. But at what cost? Time. Essentially it boils down to workflow efficiency. It cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend sitting at the computer. This leaves you more time to shoot and enjoy life.
Shooting a lot of exposures at the scene isn’t going to save you any time. If you want to shoot a 2 minute long exposure, it’s still going to take 2 minutes to take each of those individual pictures. With a single long exposure shot, however, the post processing can be done in a few minutes. If I have to wait for Photoshop or another application to stack all these images on top of each other and blend them, before I even start tweaking it to my liking, that’s a lot of time wasted. And it’s less time I have to do other things.
Same goes for ND grads. Sometimes, the answer may be as simple as applying a grad in Lightroom or ACR to a single shot before it comes into photoshop. But if I have to merge multiple exposures, I’m not going to take the easy HDR router. The results just rarely give me what I want. So, it’s manual frame blending with luminosity masks and other techniques. Suddenly, what might take 3 minutes using an ND grad suddenly turns into 3 hours without one.
So, like Thomas, I’ll still continue to take my filters out with me. Are they essential? Other than the polariser, no, they’re not. Do they make my life a whole lot easier? Well, yes, they do.
How about you? Do you use filters? Do you agree that polarisers are still essential? Have you ditched your NDs and grads in favour of spending more time at the computer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.